Earlier, we talked about being in the right place at the wrong time. Or the wrong place at the right time. Well, here’s how that happened to me.
I grew up in Australia and was school in suburban Sydney. When I was about 15, my English teacher recommended David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life, which was one of her favourite novels. Keen to understand her appreciation, I read the book, which is essentially Ovid’s account of his period of exile during which he encounters a wolf-child. It seemed a long way from a Sydney springtime, so I didn’t connect with it as I might have done. But I knew that Malouf was a writer to return to.
A few years later, I’d walk past him in the Fisher Library at Sydney University. How exciting to practically rub shoulders with one of the nation’s best-regarded writers! But I went off to read Julian of Norwich instead.
Then I moved to London, and gorged on contemporary British fiction. My colleagues, as I liked to think of them. But, annoyingly, people would ask me about Australia. What’s it like? What’s important to the people who live there? Why did you leave?
I could tell them facts about history and politics, but I needed another – perhaps kinder – source, because I felt extremely unqualified to speak as a patriotic Australian. Finally, it was time to turn to David Malouf. At the safe distance of the other side of the world, I could handle reading about the ambivalences and ambiguities and contradictions that had made me feel so uncomfortable when they were all I had to measure myself against society.
I needn’t have waited, because Malouf’s books offer the reassurance that nobody can rely on any single model to construct a template for one’s own life. You have to make your own. But you must realise that however unique your creation is, however seemingly watertight and foolproof, soon enough you’ll feel the bigger world enveloping you and you must stand as one in an even greater story. The trick is, not to disappear into that story.
Stories make us last.
‘To make glow with significance what is usually unseen, and unspoken too.’ (That’s from The Great World.) ‘It was the words he wanted to get hold of. It was the words that would recognise him. He did not want to be taken back. What he wanted was to be recognised.’ (That’s the sentiment of Gemmy Fairley in Remembering Babylon – a white man who was lost at sea in the 1840s and rescued by aborigines amongst whom he has lived for sixteen years. Then, suddenly, the white settlers return …)
Perhaps, in reading tales of restraint and anguish in Chelsea, I’d forgotten that stories can also wrench open vast, atavistic sentiments and make the wounds bearable. It’s something I haven’t forgotten since.
I’d love to know: which writers have taught you most about storytelling or about yourself?